Former CIA Director Stansfield Turner said Friday that he removed Panamanian strongman Manuel A. Noriega from the agency payroll in 1977 because he was an "unscrupulous character," but that Vice President George Bush later reinstated him.
Turner said that after Bush took office in 1981 he "met with Noriega and put him back on the payroll" as an intelligence source.
Bush spokesman Stephen Hart said Turner's statement was "patently false--untrue." Hart said he based his denial on a conversation with Bush.
Turner made the comments in response to Bush's statements last Sunday during the presidential debate that "seven administrations were dealing with Mr. Noriega," who now faces federal indictments charging him with drug smuggling and money laundering.
Turner, who replaced Bush as CIA director in 1977 when Jimmy Carter became President, said in an interview: "We all know that Bush (while CIA director) met with Noriega . . . and I will affirm that Bush had him on the (CIA) payroll.
"I was there four years, and I never saw fit to see him or have him on the payroll."
Turner said he decided to sever previously close CIA relations with Noriega in 1977 because "he was an unscrupulous character. He was spying on us. He was not the kind of character we should be relying on."
Aides to Bush have previously acknowledged that Bush met with Noriega on two occasions, once as CIA director and again during a trip to Panama in December, 1983. Bush has said the Reagan Administration deserves credit for the prosecution of Noriega.
In 1976, Noriega was head of Panamanian military intelligence and was known to be working closely with the Cuban intelligence service while on the CIA's payroll.
"Bush then became vice president and met with Noriega and put him back on the payroll," Turner said.
Turner declined to say how he knew that Bush reinstated Noriega to the CIA payroll after becoming vice president, but said: "I can tell you I am very confident of that."
Turner said that, although he took Noriega off the payroll, the CIA may have maintained some level of contact with Noriega during his four-year term as CIA director. But he said: "I didn't meet with him. It wasn't worthy of elevation to my level--but Mr. Bush did, twice."